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Fairwood Explorer Team Advances to Destination Imagination State Tournament


Fairwood Explorer School’s team, Fantastic Unique Ninjas (FUN), was regional champion this year, qualifying the team to compete in the state tournament in Riverside, California. This was not a soccer or basketball tournament but one where teamwork was just as critical, so were creativity, swift decision-making, and problem-solving. Three other teams from Fairwood Explorer in grades kindergarten through third also participated in DI regional tournaments this year.

Destination Imagination, Inc, had been operating under this name since 1999. This non-profit organization has provided a unique opportunity for students from kindergarten through college-age to develop superb problem-solving strategies that require participants to work effectively and efficiently with their teammates, fully utilizing their creativity to devise a solution to their assigned problems with each member contributing to the team’s presentation of their solution.

DI’s mission is to “inspire and equip students to become the next generation of innovators and leaders.” The non-profit organization relies heavily on volunteers at every level: school teachers and volunteer parents as team managers for teams, and trained volunteers to serve as appraisers at competitions and tournaments.

Destination Imagination teams are comprised of up to seven students and one adult team manager who is often a teacher or parent volunteer. Team managers’ jobs are strictly limited to keeping the team on track; they are not allowed to help their teams develop solutions. Team managers can and do help facilitate the students’ acquisition of skills and knowledge, but they may not provide any direction or hint as to how this knowledge may be applied to the solution. For instance, if the team is puzzled about how to thread ropes through a pulley system as part of their solution, the team manager may provide them with an assortment of wheels and ropes, and suggest research material the team may read, but they allow the students to experiment with the materials and search for information to help them figure out how they can set up a pulley system that works for their application. Even young elementary grade students learn the invaluable skills of working well with others; each team member might have a different idea of solving the same problem. The team has to decide which ideas to try and how. Leadership roles shift among team members fluidly, depending on the task at hand. Over the first few months of the school year, students meet weekly to work on challenge problems provided by DI where students practice working as a team, reaching a team solution to the problems and coordinating the presentation of their solutions.

Fairwood's 4th Grade team, practicing Instant Challenge during one of their meetings.
Fairwood’s 4th Grade team, practicing Instant Challenge during one of their meetings.
Fairwood’s team working after school.
Fairwood’s Fantastic Unique Ninjas team, working on a solution to an Instant Challenge problem.


Joe Gabent, 4th Grade teacher at Fairwood Explorer, shares team manager responsibility with parent, Kevin Smith. Mr. Gabent has mentored other teams at Fairwood before. This is his third year managing a team, but first to have his team qualify for the state tournament. Mr. Smith has been a DI team manager for four years.

All Destination Imagination teams must present a solution to a Central Challenge problem and solve an Instant Challenge assignment at competitions. There were seven Central Challenges for teams to choose each year: Technical, Scientific, Structural, Fine Arts, Improvisational, Service Learning/Project Outreach, and Early Learning/Rising Stars. See details of this year’s challenges at Fairwood’s Fantastic Unique Ninjas chose Improvisation, and their challenge was to create three independent improvisational sketches, research and incorporate improvisational games and street performances, and practice integrating randomly selected situations and settings. Team members, Toby, Max, Alex, Kaitlyn, and Julianna came together through friendships and their common interest in the challenge of working together and solving problems in creative ways. The team met once a week after school to develop solutions to their Central Challenge problem and to practice Instant Challenges. In Instant Challenges, the team was given a task and team members had to plan and execute it within 6-8 minutes. At tournaments, each team presented their Central Challenge and was given an Instant Challenge problem to solve. The regional competition took place on February 21 at Independence High School in San Jose. Teams from all over Silicon Valley participated. There were 19 teams at the elementary level, competing in the Improvisational Challenge. The top 3 teams advanced to compete in the state tournament in Riverside on March 28; Fairwood’s 4th grade team was one of them. The Fantastic Unique Ninjas performed remarkably at the state tournament. The FUN team worked extremely well together, which was important in the Improvisational Challenge, since team members had to pay attention to what each other was doing during the skits. They challenged themselves and reacted really well to the situations they had to improvise on the spot.

The team at state tournament.
The team at the regional tournament.
The team being interviewed at the state tournament.
The team being interviewed at the state tournament.

Mr Gabent shared that his team has already been talking about plans for next year, thinking about possibly adding another member. With financial support from Fairwood Explorer School and Fairwood Explorer Alliance, a parent group at the school, and enthusiasm in his students, Mr. Gabent looks forward to another year with this team as well.

Contributors: Joe Gabent, teacher at Fairwood Explorer School, Nina Wong-Dobkin

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